Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Generalife

This essay is a continuation of the last one about the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.  In that essay we accomplished the equivalent of two days exploring the citadel of the Nasrid Emirs.  We will now cross the small valley that separates the Alhambra from the Generalife, which is one of the world's great water gardens.
The Generalife from Carmen de la Victoria in the Albayzin
"HIGH ABOVE the Alhambra, on the breast of the mountain, amidst embowered gardens and stately terraces, rise the lofty towers and white walls of the Generalife; a fairy palace, full of storied recollections."  Washington Irving, Tales of the Alhambra

The Generalife was once the summer palace of the Nasrid dynasty, which by being separate from the Alhambra was also considered to be something like a country estate, even though it is but a short walk away.
Patio de Acequia
The palace was commissioned by the Emir Muhammad III at the beginning of the 14th Century on the site of gardens that had been developed for 200 years previously as a playground retreat for the royal families.  They were considered to be outside the jurisdiction of the Alhambra city complex.  These gardens are located on a slope at a higher elevation than the Alhambra and encompass fine views of that fabled citadel.  The Generalife was subsequently remodeled by his nephew Abu l-Walid Ismail a decade later, adding additional palace structures and garden patios.

A dotted winter planting of ornamental kale
Crossing the ravine via an arched stone bridge that connects the tops of high defensive walls, the wide path skirts a broad modern plaza that is the site of of the Generalife Theater and the Festival of Music and Dance of Granada.  This outdoor auditorium was built between 1952 and inaugurated 1954.  It has undergone several renovations to improve the quality and range of performances but feels rather unworthy of the glorious space it inhabits when not in use, which is most of the time.  On the slopes below are orchards and beds of row crops consisting of artichokes and kale and fava beans in winter.

At the bottom of the ravine runs the road leading down to the Rio Darro and the Albayzin neighborhood, on the Cuesta del Rey Chico.
Cuesta del Rey Chico
Once past the theater, steps lead up to another terrace and the cypress hedged lower gardens of the Generalife.  The first part that you enter was built in 1951 as an extension to the hedged gardens further on that were built in the 1930's.  The gardens were designed by the architect/politician/preservationist Francisco Prieto Moreno in the Muslim style.  The state acquired ownership of the palace from the last private owner, the Marquis de Campote'jar, after a long legal battle.  He was a descendent of Familia Venegas, of whom a high ranking member of the family was deeded the property in 1631.  The site was formerly an alley of walnut trees and vegetable gardens to provide fresh produce for the palaces.

Interlocking circles in pebble mosaic in the lower gardens
The first thing you notice are the wonderful pebble mosaic paths framed by clipped cypress hedges that form rooms and alleys leading up to the palace on a long terrace.  The first part of the lower gardens of the Generalife are divided by a brick framed water channel in a style that is mimicked in gardens of this type throughout the world.  Two low marble basins anchor the ends of the long narrow pools, with another basin at the center in which thin arched jets of water splash.  The brick coping on the pools are ornamented with potted Pelargoniums in the summer.

Axial pool in the lower garden of the Generalife
At the center of the garden, dividing the two sections of the axial pool is the small round pool with four square cornered bays and a marble basin at the center.  This is the intersection of a perpendicular pair of shorter linear pools.  Fountain jets arching through the air shimmer like sparkling diamonds splashing in to the basin from all sides.  The four linear pools represent the Four Rivers of Paradise, water, milk, honey, and wine.  Everything in this garden is connected by water, as in the Alhambra.  Cypress trees frame the fountain and this is a popular place for people to stop to look up and down the long pools and pose for photos.

Central fountain in the lower gardens of the Generalife

Beyond the garden with the long pools are several intimate rooms created by the hedges on either side of the central axis.  The hedges are densely planted rows of clipped columnar cypress trees.  When they plant a hedge row, they place steel poles near either end with taught cables stretched between them at different heights to prevent the hedges from leaning.  Over time they fill in, covering the armature.  You can see an example of the cabling on the lower left side of the photo below.  The tops are clipped at different levels like towers framing the arched gateways carved in to the hedges that connect the garden rooms.
Cabled armatures provide stability in new Cypress hedges in the lower gardens
Hedged room in the lower gardens
Each room has a different pebble mosaic pattern.  On some of the paths there are wonderful mosaic vases with bouquets of flowers.  Another is a ring of birds, probably swallows.  Others are  tessellated geometric patterns like simpler versions of those carved in the stucco on palace walls.

There are fine views of the Alhambra across the ravine from here.

As you approach the palace of the Generalife there is another lovely fountain in the shape of a square with rounded bays on each side, and tiny arches of water splashing in to the center.

A brick edged fountain near the entrance of the Generalife
Below this is a narrow walled pathway that leads up from the ravine that was the old medieval access ramp to the palace.  This entrance is now closed to the public.  The entrance to the palace itself is through a courtyard called the Patio de Descabalgamieno, or Court of Dismounting.  There are footrests here that would have been used for mounting horses, hence the name.  The courtyard is a simple walled enclosure, with arched niches which might have been the stations of guards.  The floor is now a mosaic of pebbles with lines running from the four corners to a central fountain basin.  There are four orange trees planted in the corners of the patio that would fill it with the sweetest fragrance when in bloom.

Patio de Descabalgamieno
Espaliered orange trees frame arches on a patio off the Patio de la Acequia

From here there is a flight of steps to another small guard room and then you enter the Patio de la Acequia, or Court of the Water Channel.  This is the patio for which the Generalife is famed.  Two elegant pavilions anchor the ends of a long rectangular space, with an open arcade of white stuccoed arches along the south side that afford beautiful views of the Alhambra and the vegetable gardens below.
Patio de la Acequia
A long water canal bisects the courtyard into which a great many high arched narrow jets of water shoot through the air.  This makes a lot of delightful splashing sounds and cools the air on hot summer days.  The canal is flanked by flower beds and is bisected by a perpendicular path creating a symbolic four part paradise garden.  There are two of the very comfortable style Nasrid folding chairs on either end of the patio to sit and absorb the ambience of the space and it is well worth indulging in taking leave here.

Arched fountains in the Patio de Acequia
The Generalife has undergone a great deal of alteration over the years, in part because of the poor state of condition that resulted from years of neglect.  While doing archeological excavations after a fire in 1953, clay pipes were found that would have run 12 fountain jets in to the canal, but not so exuberantly as the many fountains that line the pool now.  The Nasrid preference seems to be rather more peaceful. The system that you see today was added in the 1,800's, and is considered a classic example of Andalusian waterworks that is often replicated in ambitious gardens around the world whenever a Moorish influence is desired.

The southern arcade of the Patio de Acequia
The patio was once entirely enclosed except for the mirador (viewpoint) in the royal chambers at the west end of the court.  The narrow open arcade along the south side was added after the reconquista.  The opposite side contains royal bedchambers and a high terrace wall.  The rooms on the west end are graced with elegant carved stucco and stalactite muqarna ceilings.  The mirador windows are low so that people could recline on cushions on the floor and gaze out over the gardens below and the city across the valley.  Unfortunately the mirador is roped off now for the sake of perservation, and it is difficult to get a good view of the parterres and fountains below the walls.
Facade of the royal chambers on the west end of the Patio de Acequia
The sculpted arch leading to the mirador
The beautiful mirador looking out to the Albayzin, with fretwork windows above.
A small muqarnas dome in the royal chambers
Arabic calligraphy in a doorway in the royal chambers
From the royal chambers on the west end of the patio there is a passageway that leads to another arcade opening on to the Patio de la Sultana, which was built in 1584 after the reconquista by Catholic monarchs.
The royal chambers
16th Century arcade opening on to the Patio de la Sultana
The patio contains a rectangular Myrtle hedged U-shaped pool with a square pool and a simple stone fountain at the center.  Several slender, tall water jets arch in to the pool from all sides.  The pool was drained for restoration this year but was opulently splashing away last year so I have photos of it in its full splendor.  It is quite deep and holds a great deal of water, being connected to the royal canal that is diverted from the Rio Darro far up the hill.  This water supplies all of the fountains in the Generalife and the Alhambra.
Patio de la Sultana with the ancient cypress tree of legend to the right.
The patio is named for the ancient cypress tree that dates from the time of the Moors.  Legend tells the story that the last Nasrid Emir, Baobdil's Sultana had secret rendezvous with a knight from the Abencerrajes family in a hollow in the tree's trunk.  On discovering this potential infidelity, Baobdil had the knights of the family summoned to the Patio de los Leones, where they were beheaded one by one in the hall that bears their name to this day.  This tale was immortalized by the writer Gines Perez de Hita, a 16th century Spanish writer who's historical novel, 'Guerras Civiles de Granada' was perhaps the first of its kind ever published and widely read.

Central fountain of the Patio de la Sultana
Two pebble mosaic paths with diamond patterns lead around the pool with a coat of arms of the Venegas family at the base of a handsome staircase that leads to the upper gardens centered on the far end.

Pebble mosaic path in the Patio de la Sultana
Coat of arms of the Venegas family in the Patio de la Sultana
Stairs leading from the Patio de la Sultana to the Upper Gardens
The upper gardens of the Generalife lie at the top of these stairs, which are guarded by two ceramic lions fashioned in the Granada style.  The gardens afford beautiful views of the Generalife and the Alhambra.
The Patio de Acequia from the upper gardens
Parts of the gardens date from the 19th century, while the famed Water Stairway is a heavily remodeled version of a staircase that dates from the time of the Moors.  They were described in the writings of the Venetian poet Andrea Navagiero in the early 1500's.  The stairs have round pebble mosaic landings with a simple fountain in the center of each.  What makes the staircase so charming is the water channels running down the balustrades, in which you can trail your hand in the cool water as you climb the stairs.  A bower of Laurel trees arches over them making for a cool retreat on hot summer days.

The Water Staircase
Detail of one of the pebble mosaic landings and fountain on the Water Staircase
Water channel on the balustrade of the Water Staircase
The upper gardens contain high walled terraces with low clipped hedges in geometric shapes surrounding a variety of trees, including old cypresses and large evergreen Southern Magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora), a tree native the the Southeast of the United States.   Fountains mark the junctions of paths, bringing the element of water once again in to every part of the gardens.

Parterres in the upper garden
A fountain and the peculiar winter form of tree roses in the upper gardens
A double staircase frames a grotto while connecting two terraces in the upper gardens
Water from the royal canal spills from a terrace wall in the upper garden
The gardens of the Generalife are a difficult place to leave behind, and I have twice now been flushed out by guards wanting to go home at the end of the day.  It is tempting to hide somewhere to be able to experience the enchantment of solitude in such a magical place.  As Federico Garcia Lorca once wrote:

"How hard it is for the daylight to take its leave of Granada!  It entangles itself in the cypress, or hides beneath the water"

The exit is via a long pebble paved path under an arched bower of bent Oleanders.  A spiky fence discourages people like me from trying to duck behind a tree unnoticed.  I'm sure a great many people have been as reluctant as I to depart from this paradise on Earth.
The Promenade of the Oleanders
There are obscured views of the fantastic cypress hedges of the lower gardens of the Generalife and the Alhambra along the way.
Cypress hedges in the lower gardens of the Generalife with the Alhambra in the background
The Promenade of the Oleanders leads to the Promenade of the Cypresses, which was planted in honor of a royal visit by the Queen of Spain in the early 20th Century.  This path takes you to the exit and out in to the world at large.
The last ones to leave, walking down the Promenade of the Cypresses
"All these sights and sounds, together with the princely seclusion of the place, the sweet quiet which prevailed around, and the delicious serenity of the weather had a witching effect upon the mind, and drew from some of the company, versed in local story, several of the popular fancies and traditions connected with this old Moorish palace; they were “such stuff as dreams are made of...”  Washington Irving, Tales of the Alhambra 

Thanks always for taking the time to read these essays, Jeffrey


  1. Beautiful pictures, wonderful visit, thank you for taking us along! I bet you got much inspiration for future projects. Like your ring too, take care, Gina

  2. Great stuff, must have been here at least an hour.

  3. bookmarking for anticipated retreat whenever time calls for cool meanderings.

  4. Wow. We were there in July and while I enjoyed every inch of its beauty I didn't understand any of the symbolism until I read this post. Thank you!

  5. what a marvelous tour! I would love to have traveled there with you, though there is no way I could have ever been able to afford your delicately artistic and poetic erudition as a personal guide! very nicely done!

  6. I think the Coat of Arms belongs to the Crown of Castile.
    Your site is truly excellent!
    Thank you for sharing!